HC Deb 02 May 1956 vol 552 cc445-51

Amendment made: In page 11, line 36, leave out "or Northern Ireland ".[Mr. P. Thorneycroft.]

Amendment proposed: In page 11, line 38, at end insert: and no such proceedings shall be instituted in Northern Ireland except by or with the consent of the Attorney General for Northern Ireland or the Registrar ".—[Mr. P. Thorneycroft.]

Sir J. Hutchison

It may be that I have wrongly interpreted the meaning of the words in the Clause to which this Amendment refers. To me they are rather puzzling. To whittle them down to their essentials it appears that under Clause 13 (1) No proceedings … shall be instituted … except by or with the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Registrar. I am not quite clear whether that means that the Registrar himself can initiate a prosecution. If that is so, then I think that it is undesirable that he should. There is a psychological advantage in the Registrar not being regarded as a prosecutor of industry. Normally the procedure would be for the Registrar to inform the Director of Public Prosecutions and, with the consent of the Registrar, the Director would, in fact, carry out the proceedings. If I am right in thinking that the Registrar himself can do so, may I have my right hon. Friend's assurance that that power will be used on the minimum number of occasions; in short, that the Registrar should be discouraged from initiating proceedings and that it should be left to the proper individual to take such action, namely, the Director of Public Prosecutions?

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

The answer to my hon. Friend is, "Yes, the Registrar can." The reason is that it does seem rather heavy-weight action to call in the Director of Public Prosecutions on every possible occasion for such offences as failure to register and failure to comply with a notice under Clause 11 and so forth. We will certainly give consideration to this point but there are precedents for this type of proceeding. Under the appropriate Act the Registrar of births, deaths and marriages can take proceedings for failure to register and, on the whole, I really think that it is probably a tidier, more expeditious and more sensible arrangement than to refer what are not criminal offences in the ordinary sense of the word to the Director of Public Prosecutions and to marshal all the panoply of the Prosecutions Department on every possible occasion.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

I should like to know where the line of demarcation is to be. What are to be the cases in which the Registrar is to intervene and what type of cases are to be directed to the Director of Public Prosecutions? I agree with what the President says as to the sense of not bringing in the Director on every matter—naturally, that would be absurd—but there should be some line of demarcation.

Mr. Thorneycroft

if I may say so, that would be rather ad hoc in particular cases. It would not be possible to lay down precise details in such a wide and complex field as this. I can say to the hon. and learned Member for Gloucester (Mr. Turner-Samuels) that one would presume that the Director of Public Prosecutions might be consulted in cases of rather exceptional importance—

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Grave cases.

Mr. Thorneycroft

Grave cases, yes, or cases of rather exceptional importance—or cases where there had been a large-scale, deliberate attempt to evade. I imagine that in that type of case one might bring in the Director, but we are rather anxious that he should not be brought in in the ordinary run of cases.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 12, line 1, after "Prosecutions", insert: the Attorney-General for Northern Ireland".—[Mr. P. Thorneycroft.]

Mr. A. J. Irvine

I beg to move, in page 12, line 13, to leave out subsection (4).

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

It may be convenient to take with this Amendment the next two Amendments, in line 14, leave out "three" and insert "six", and in line 15, at end insert: came to the knowledge of the Registrar".

Mr. Irvine

The purpose of the Amendment is to stiffen the penalty proceedings under the Bill, which we think are not firm enough, to meet the purpose which on both sides of the Committee we are agreed is our aim. The Clause provides that, No information shall be laid or proceedings commenced in respect of any such offence as aforesaid more than three years after the commission of the offence. I recognise that the period of three years has clear, interesting and respectable precedents on which we can rely. The period of three years is the period which applies as tiles limit within which proceedings must be taken for offences under the Customs and Excise Act and also for offences under a whole variety of statutes, including those which have regard to false entries on registers of births, marriages and deaths.

It has come about that there is a kind of statutory sanction for this period of three years as being a reasonable period to put into effect. On the other hand, the period of three years is not universally applied. The Income Tax Act has provided that the period to be applied shall be as long as six years. The Revenue authorities of the Treasury have deemed it desirable—and Parliament has given them support—that, in the matter of tax evasion and the rest, it should be possible to take proceedings for penalties as long as six years after the offence was committed.

6.15 p.m.

I do not think that the offences committed under the Bill are very different in character and time from offences under the Income Tax Act. The same consideration seems to me to apply. I should have thought that Income Tax offences are much more analogous to what we are dealing with under the Bill than are those other offences to which I have referred in respect of which a period of three years applies. That is my view on the main issue of the period of time, but much more important than that is that the period of time, whatever it is to be, should run from the date at which the offence comes to the knowledge of the Registrar as distinct from the date of the committal of the offence. That is aimed at in the third of the three Amendments which we are now discussing.

It seems to me quite wrong that any other moment of time should mark the commencement of the period of limitation than the moment at which the matter comes to the knowledge of the Registrar. Failing that, all that happens is that the defaulter lies "doggo" and waits for a comparatively short period of time—a period in which the Registrar is fully occupied, as we expect, with a whole host of matters. The three years pass and no action is taken against the offender, and away he goes scot-free. It seems to us a very undesirable state of affairs.

This gives rise to considerations somewhat similar to those which we considered in the main debate on Clause 12. It points to the fact that in its penal Clauses the Bill gives too great an opportunity to a party to a registrable agreement to do nothing about it and to commit an offence which, though not a positive offence, can be as much an offence against the law as a positive one, namely, the offence of doing nothing.

Mr. Mulley

My hon. Friend the Member for Edgehill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) has moved the Amendment with such lucidity that there is little for anyone else on this side of the Committee to say. I would make the point, however, that this matter needs to be looked at afresh if, as we understand, the President of the Board of Trade is to create a new offence of failure to register. As the Bill stands, there is no offence until failure to register is discovered and some person is in default after receiving notice from the Registrar. In those circumstances, it would be reasonable to have a limit of three years, but if, as a result of a Government Amendment on Report, the offence is to consist of failure to register, there is a case for making this period one of six years.

I would also ask the President to look very sympathetically at the third Amendment which would date the period from the time the offence came to the knowledge of the Registrar. In my view, a new situation will arise when the right hon. Gentleman amends the Bill on Report, as he has undertaken to do.

Mr. Turner-Samuels

A very important point is involved here which has not yet been mentioned. If this were a continuing offence, the limited period of three years might not be objectionable, but the Parliamentary Secretary made reference earlier to a period of three months, at the end of which, he said, the continuity of this offence would cease and thereupon there would be, if the practice still existed, a new offence.

The advantage of this provision in subsection (4) to an offender is that it will mean that the continuity of the offence committed by him will cease, and, therefore, this limit of three years in the subsection may well be very valuable to him. There is a further significance in this provision. If an offender is caught during the three years whilst his default is causing damage to the public, then he can be dealt with; but if the period is longer than that, and the damage to the public is, therefore, still greater, we are to have no hold on him at all. That really cannot make good sense, and it certainly cannot make good legislation. Why the public interest, which suffers greater damage by the effluxion of a longer time, should be left in a worse situation as against the shorter period, is very difficult to appreciate.

I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary did not want to be uncandid about this, because he never is uncandid. I ask him really to apply his mind to the point, because when he mentioned the three months' limit, no doubt quite innocently—if it is possible for the Parliamentary Secretary to be innocent—he said that it was desirable that this offence should not continue longer than the three months, but that if there were a continuation of it then it should be treated as another offence, I cannot think that he really saw what the implications and consequences would be in their impact upon the terms of subsection (4) of this Clause. It is, in my opinion, not right that it should be allowed to stand in that way, because its effect is to constitute an escape Clause for an offender. I ask the President, as I am sure he will, to consider the matter from that point.

Mr. P. Thorneycroft

I certainly acknowledge that there is a sound point involved in these Amendments, and I think I can meet the principle underlying the arguments advanced.

I will divide the matter into cases triable by summary proceedings and those triable on indictment. I would suggest that we might leave the arrangements for summary proceedings as they are here, extending the period from six months to twelve months. In principle, I do not think that is very objectionable, because the matters involved are all such as must, in the nature of them, have come to the notice of the Registrar, that is, failure to register on receipt of a notice or obstruction of an officer. Those are offences which must be dealt with summarily, in twelve months, and I do not think that the objections which are potent as regards the other cases are really valid here.

There are, or there might be, offences under Part I of the Bill, where any person conceals the existence of restrictions imposed by wilfully suppressing documents, and the like; and in those cases there is force in the argument that one should not impose an arbitrary three-year limit. That people have succeeded in suppressing documents for three years is no particular reason why they should escape scot-free. There is, I think, a reasonable argument there.

If the hon. Gentleman the Member for Edge Hill (Mr. A. J. Irvine) would be content to withdraw his Amendment, for the moment, what I would propose to do is to put down at the appropriate stage an Amendment which would leave the procedure for summary conviction as it stands, but, as regards proceedings on indictment, will either abolish the three-year limit altogether or put in another period, say, three years or six years after the matter has come to the knowledge of the Registrar. I will consider between now and the Report stage what would be the best arrangement.

Mr. A. J. Irvine

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for that statement of his intentions. In view of what he has said, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: In page 12, line 17, after "Prosecutions", insert: the Attorney General for Northern Ireland ".—[Mr. P. Thorneycroft.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.